Wednesday, July 19, 2017

INTERREGNUM (iii): Comic Book Logic, Torn Costumes and Violence

Doc Savage is the most well known precursor to modern-day super-heroes, and several authors have already noticed the striking similarities between this Man of Bronze and Siegel & Schuster’s Man of Steel. In fact, Doc Savage stands in the unmarked frontier between pulp fiction and comic books, serving as the prototype to both Superman-like heroes and Batman-type action-detectives, as well as several other tropes. In his crime-fighting and adventurous career, Savage fought criminals, mad scientists and natural monsters, including dinosaurs, and had to survive firefights, crashing planes, sinking subs, fires, explosions, and everything else ‘Kenneth Robeson’ (mostly Lester Dent) could think of. As a result of such extreme adventures and near-misses, the tattered shirt of Doc Savage became a permanent fixture of the character in such diverse media as pulp covers, comic books, graphic novels and films, functioning as a signifier of extreme violence. By means of contrast, injuries were kept to a minimum, mostly never more than a broken lip or a bleeding nose. It was as if the damage suffered by his costume/clothes stood for the intensity of the violence he had to suffer through. Very much as it goes in cartoons (printed or animated) where a character (say Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck) after surviving an explosion, is shown with body blackened and clothes in tatters for a few seconds, before regaining his normal un-disheveled appearance. And such graphic practice was transmitted to comics from its very beginnings.

As I will explore in my next post (the last of the two-year-in-the-making introductory posts to this blog), the superhero costume is very much part and parcel of the hero’s identity and personal definition; something that shouldn’t need further explanation as through the years we’ve seen different characters assume the mantle of iconic super-heroes like Batman, Batgirl, Robin, Captain America, Black Panther and such, implying that besides the particular powers specific to each character, it truly is the costume that makes the hero. Even when, as is the case with Doc Savage, the costume is merely defined by tattered clothes, something equally valid when dealing with Savage’s own female version: his niece Pat Savage.

I’ll admit that what I’m about to posit needs a little more statistical confirmation, but I’ll advance it anyhow in the spirit of impressionistic empiricism: as Mulvey, Dworkin and McKinnon’s unsubstantiated assertions on female objectification and identification of sex with violence drove feminist and extreme-right reaction against female (and even male) exposed flesh, comic book creators started putting forth lame explanations for costumes not to get torn to shreds.

I guess one can set CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS as the representational turning point, with a bevy of costumes being torn as entire earths and heroes were swiped clean, culminating in the torn and bleeding Supergirl dying with her costume in tatters, a confluence of torn costume and injuries, and a vision not soon to be repeated. In his re-imaginings, Byrne would erase the smallest rip from Superman or Wonder Woman’s costumes, with ridiculous explanations of bodily auras that would protect the cloth in contact with the hero’s skin, and generating endless jokes about the incredible number of capes Superman had to replace.

However, as the successive torn capes made clear, even Byrne felt that the costume in tatters was the best way of representing the outcome of physical violence, short of representing the real outcome of violence itself. That is: broken teeth, black-and-blue pulped flesh, broken bones and lots of blood. And, in a way, that’s the way comics went under the neo-victorian code of representation. Intact costumes would demand and bring forth ever more excessive degrees of physical violence. Thus, we went from something like this: 

to things like these:

Of course, for the progressive politically-correct noisy minority, violence is always preferable to sex, blood to breasts, death or mutilation to pin-up poses, better to allow them to hypocritically rage over their filled-to-capacity refrigerators. And so, the blood for intact costumes mode of representation became dominant in the major publishers, and affected both male and female characters. Case in point, one of my first pre-adolescent objects of desire: Ms. Marvel (Carol Danvers).
In the seventies, after she emerged from the shadow of Capitain Marvel, Carol Danvers became one of the most popular female superheroes, Marvel’s worthy response to DC’s more tame Supergirl (also a Danvers, and my first ever comic book crush), even if not to ür-Superheroine, Wonder Woman. Hailed as a feminist and progressive icon (something over which not all feminists are in agreement – what else is new?), she nonetheless figured in two cult-covers from her own magazine, where torn costumes are used as effective pointers to the level of menace facing Ms. Marvel (even if not at all faithful to the stories within).

Both covers substitute the torn costume for any bloody signs of violence, which could be confused with topic domestic violence, or battery and assault (and Odin knowns the sexual readings that radical progs, fed with Freudian-mush, already get out of the covers as they are). But, as I stated above, torn costumes had to go, to be replaced by more overtly violent graphics. Now the question is how to represent that level of violence when the one on the receiving end is a super-powered, practically indestructible, super-being, without letting it slide into cartoon caricature? And the answer is: not easily.

Let us consider MS. MARVEL #18-24 (2007-2008), a set of books that comprises the “Puppets” and “Monster and Marvel” story-arcs, both of them easy fodder to varied readings and interpretations.  However interesting as they are (and I intend to do a go-over around “Puppets” in the future), it is not the stories per se that I want to tackle now, but the graphic representation of violence, as it escalates towards a maximum of absurdness of which the creators seem not to be aware.

It begins in MS. MARVEL #18, when our heroine is hit point-blank with a grenade that literally explodes on her face without causing the smallest rip on her costume.

If one was to take that as a little bit absurd but still within the bounds of comic book logic, issue 20 brings a quick escalation of power-yield, as Carol once more comes out unscathed from what appears to be a multiple-megaton blast.

Needless to say, despite emerging from the blast amidst a maelstrom of raging fire, her costume remains equally unscathed.

Immediately in the same issue, Ms. Marvel’s quarters aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. light helicarrier are destroyed in another impressive explosion when hit by an alien missile.

And again, there seems not to be any amount of energy capable of damaging Carol’s costume:

But if you thought that impressive, by issue #21, Carol drops from the outer atmosphere of some alien world… in her pajamas… which miraculously come equally unscathed from the fall and the friction and the heat generated by both.

And there’s no way in hell that repeated references to the “blue stuff inside me” can explain the indestructibility of Carol’s clothes. And it doesn’t stop here, as the creators (writer Brian Reed and penciler Aaron Lopestri) go one over the top and in MISS MARVEL #24 don’t shy away from a good-old nuclear blast at close range in the plain vacuum of space:

It is a spectacular blast that sends the equally indestructible alien creature careening through space, gaining Ms. Marvel – and Earth – some well needed time.

Of course, once again, both Ms. Marvel and her unbelievably resilient costume survive unscathed, even adding another vertiginous fall through the atmosphere.

Both story arcs from which the images above were selected are told with verve, both literary and visual, and one comes out of them with a distinct impression that its authors are aware they are straining the good will of their readers in accepting that a mere piece of cloth could survive such rough handling; not only that, one senses they know their readers will swallow it whole, because not to do it would be politically incorrect. (Surely they wouldn’t believe their story was so brilliant one wouldn’t notice how synthetic fabrics can withstand nuclear explosions and temperatures as close to those of the sun as they can get.) Underlining these impressions, is the fact that in MS. MARVEL #21 the issue of Carol Danvers/Ms.Marvel’s identity is broached in a pertinent way, denying any exceptionality to Carol/Ms.Marvel’s costume:  We’re the same person. I am Ms. Marvel. It’s just a costume”.

Now, one can argue that something in Ms. Marvel’s powers can keep her clothes intact; not only her uniform, but also her pajamas. That somehow, Carol’s invulnerability extends to whatever she’s wearing. But how could this happen?

True, in issue #23, Carol discovers that the alien Cru can “turn her powers off”. Certainly that could explain how the alien’s sting could penetrate through Carol’s costume and Carol’s flesh. Bu then how to explain this in MS. MARVEL #19?

Despite catfighting Tigra (no pun intended) for over two pages (ok, one’s a splash page) and then tackling Silverclaw for two more, Ms. Marvel comes away bleeding from her torn cheek, but with her costume absolutely pristine: again, with costume intact in order not to raise the ire of the righteous left, it is necessary to draw (pun intended) blood. (It is true that in the story, the scratches on Carol’s face are a contrivance used to subdue Ms.Marvel through a toxin in Tigra’s claws, but that does not explain how could the striped ex-Avenger break Ms.Marvel’s atomic-blast-proof skin.) 
I think I illustrated – although briefly , and without delving  too much on the details of both story arcs, resting on a more visual approach – how I think that the politically correct refraining from present the female characters in ways that could eroticize them through too much exposed flesh , or even equate too uncomfortably eroticism and violence (not that they are mutually exclusive, quite the contrary, but remember this is literature for children – some, quite sophisticated children, but children nonetheless) led to the need to represent more blood and bodily maiming to convey the same degree of danger and menace that yesteryear was conveyed by torn clothes.

So it is that we see Carol Danvers scratched and bleeding, with her back torn by the barbed tendril of Cru, blood running like gravy from her rendered flesh, but with costume proper and primly intact, surviving explosions and nuclear blasts. Carol’s costume in this pages seems like the huge elephant in the middle of the room, that everyone is pretending no to notice. And more than following comic book logic, it calls our attention for nothing as much as those old Disney comics: for kids, you know!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Comment on a Great Cover (1): THE FLASH #258 (1978)

I have never been a great fan of the Flash. I remember reading some of his stories around the time CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS was redrawing the DC Universe, but surely not enough to tell Barry Allen from Wally West at first sight, or to care much about it. And not even FLASHPOINT (2011), which I read from cover to cover, and to which Flash was central, did anything to draw me into the fold of Flash fans. And maybe, just maybe, it was due to this excellent cover by Jack Abel and Rich Buckler that haunts me from the time I was eight or nine.

And I’m sure it was not just any child’s natural fear of the fire that consumes Flash’s flesh, exposing the skull beneath. Nor the realization that superheroes are mortal after all, as much flesh-and-blood as any of us – a scary thought for any kid, used to believe that heroes live forever and cannot be defeated by second rate villains like Black Hand (not that I had even heard of him before). That the cover is gruesome (although brilliantly so) cannot be disputed, but it has remained an object of fascination for me since then. And there are several reasons for that, pilling one over the other, building a graphic edifice of macabre grandeur. Some of those elements are of clear intention; others however, result from fortuitous circumstances, like the darkly morbid humor that results from the juxtaposition of the hero’s sobriquet – the fastest man alive! – with a cover illustration where the Flash is everything but:

Then we have all the macabre trappings of the Flash being devoured by flame to the very bone, his skeleton sticking out from charred flesh and burnt costume, the shadows on the musculature of his torso looking nothing as much as fire-blackened roasted flesh. I guess death as never been rendered so viscerally in a super-hero comic book cover, something I believe can be attributed to Abel’s experience inking horror stories for MISTER MYSTERY (#2 -3 , 1951-52) and JOURNEY INTO UNKNOWN WORLDS. And what can one say of the look – the hopelessly desperate look on Flash’s eyes, still alive in the exposed caves of their orbits? In truth the progression of terror patent in Flash’s eyes in the last three steps of his deflagration tell unheard tales of unexpected horror and despair.

All this is fostered by the cover’s extremely dynamic layout: the reader’s own eyes are subtly dragged from the cover lower right along with the Flash’s curving trajectory, past where it’s intersected by the fatal beam from Black Hand’s gizmo-rod (C), and finally to the hovering villain himself, gloating like a mad-angel of death, in the right upper-corner of the page, there to be sent again along the beam of the rod  to where it hits Flash (C), igniting him,  a dramatic circularity that subliminally convinces the reader that there is no escape for our hero.

At least, that was the idea that held me in its unbreakable grip for all these years. So much so, that it kept me from reading any more Flash stories. Maybe I should make a short parenthesis in here: it is true that a good cover must be able to stand for itself – and this one surely does that. But in this particular instance, besides being effective from a dramatic and commercial point of view, the cover really had something to do with the story inside. And in that story, “The Day Flash Ran His Last Mile!” (by veteran Cary Bates, penciled by Irving Novick and inked by Frank McLaughlin), the villain Black Hand addresses the reader through the fourth wall, putting forth a clever explanation for his sinister plan:

I must admit that the idea of a “protective aura” shielding Flash from the friction-heat of his speed seemed cleverly logic to my young mind. After all, how would he be able to run at such speeds (even light-speed if one’s to believe his earlier stories) if it wasn’t so? And how clever of Black Hand to devise a way to neutralize said aura.  That’s the stuff great adventure is made of. However, the story at hand was a two-parter, to be concluded in THE FLASH #259 the following month. And, thanks to the erratic distribution of Brasilian-printed comic books in Portugal, where I then lived, I never got to read its conclusion (not for a few decades anyway, but it was enough delay for the effect to from the cover to dig deep in my mind). As such, the last I heard of the Flash was the final gloat of Black Hand assuring me that our hero had ran his last mile.

The truth is, I could not see how could the Flash escape such a tragic destiny. And I don’t mean in the story per se. Even at such a tender age one knows that he must have found a solution, or else there would not be any more stories featuring the Flash – and I knew there were (although I kept away from them). But I couldn’t see how could he escape such a tragic destiny forever. If he truly depended on that aura to survive such speeds, how could he run that fast without ever thinking that his aura could fail from one moment to the next? That someone else would discover the same gizmo as Black Hand did. Or, what the heck, what’s to say it wouldn’t just fail by freak accident? And I kept hearing Flash’s voice panting in panicky effort in my brain “I can’t  slow down… fast enough…” 

I guess it was this existential dread that killed my taste for the Flash. When one relied solely in comic book logic, it was easy to accept the workings of his powers. But as soon as one tries a scientific approach to it (an acquired taste from Julius Schwartz, who was then ruling editor on the book), the unavoidable cold equations take hold… and the universe is indeed a cold and indifferent place. One can run, but one can’t hide. And to err in the side of caution, better not run as fast as the Flash.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

INTERREGNUM (ii): Comic Book Logic and Rape

Comics suffer the constraint of perception. For all of its growing social relevance, for all of its long history from the pages of the funnies to the glossiest of graphic novels, comic books still bear the stigma of entertainment for kids. Comics are still that crazy kid’s stuff. And hence that delightful paradox: no longer for kids, who barely think of sex, they’re targeted at teens who barely think of anything else. And one thing teens won’t find in super-heroes books is sex (at least beyond the tame suggestion of it in the context of romance).

Now, it is obvious that sex mustn’t have a prominent place in super-hero comic books, since as a rule those are not erotic or porn books. Each genre with its own rules, even though nothing prevents genre fluidity, or the successful inclusion of explicit content in superhero comics, as both Comico’s ELEMENTAL’S SEX SPECIAL (1991-1993) and WildStorm’s THE BOYS (2006-2007) or Dynamite’s HEROGASM (2009) clearly attest. Nor is either of those matters the point of this brief post, although I intend to tackle both of them in future writings.

If I now bring up the subject of sex I do so in a more specific context – that of rape in superheroes comic books, and even so (saving the subject for a future and longer post), only as the utmost perfect illustration of Goldman’s rule #4: “the comic-book movie doesn’t have a great deal to do with life as it exists, as we know it to be. Rather, it deals with life as we would prefer it to be. Safer that way”. Even if the way we prefer it to be is childish.

First of all, I’m not talking about graphic representations of rape. Just as graphic representations of sex, they would have no place in mass-market entertainment like the comic books put out every month by Marvel or DC. What I really want to discuss is the very concept of rape. The basic idea that anywhere in the universe – in the superhero universe – such a thing could happen. To anyone. Let alone to some super-powered female come from Krypton or a power-stripped mutant in Genosha (yes, I’m thinking of the infamous UNCANNY X-MEN #236) or Kansas, or whatever.

Despite endless talk about why superheroes need secret identities to protect their families and the ones they love, we know that the Vulture, or Doc Ok, or Venom will go straight after Peter once he advertises his true identity, and if they go for Aunt May or Mary Jane, they’ll do so without the least lubricious thought in their minds.

However, one would expect rape to be a professional hazard to super-heroines (if not super-heroes). After all, their job is to fight, many times at close quarters, with vicious super-powered villains intent on world domination and drunk on power. And even more so if said villains are of the Freudian persuasion.

In fact, reality tell us that, even allowing a large margin for underreporting, and despite a decline in crime statistics, and if we’re to believe the UNODC data for 2011, more than 26 women for each 100.000 is a victim of rape, while the FBI, for 2012 alone, lists a total of 67.354 female victims of rape in the United States. In the military (something more akin to superherodom) that number rises to one in three.

But, just as it happened with Gwen Stacy, the intrusion of reality in the comic book world is a shattering event. That supervillains are willing to rape, and that superheroes are unable to prevent it, is something people seem incapable of handling. It’s something that defies Comic Book Logic, something that further punctures the improbability sphere that surrounds the world of each main character in superhero books.

Indeed, the rape of a minor character, Sue Dibny, in a hugely popular mini-series – IDENTITY CRISIS (2005) – was probably the most decried event in comic book history. In fact it was decreed anathema from all quarters. It was deemed by some to be “the stupidest, most offensive move in modern comics”, while others considered it “the embodiment of all of the worst aspects of current super-hero comics”. Some tried to justify their aversion to it because the story did not dwell at length with the trauma of the rape victim, as if that was or should be the point of the story. And others still, with shock-and-awe bombast and no sense of ridicule, proclaimed that the rape of a superhero's spouse ripped through the superhero community, broke rules of corporate superhero fiction, and left the spirit of the DC Comics universe in tatters. But, in the end, what they all were objecting was this:

Quite restrained isn’t it? Even tame, by comparison with some of the other images I chose to illustrate this post. There’s nothing graphic about it – not even the slightest hint of nudity, despite the discrete rrrrrp sound that I imagine is Dr. Light ripping Sue’s trousers. So, the only thing objectionable on this scene is the shock of the rape itself. The unexpectedness of it. Not the unexpectedness of “how could it have happened?”, but of the more crude “How dare them (the publishers/writers/artists) do it?” type. As an example, Shaun Spalding, referring to IDENTITY CRISIS, admonishes his readers: “If you’re going to write a rape into your superhero comic book, be prepared to write it well.” Sadly, no examples are given on how to do it. What a surprise.

The best way to summarize the reaction and the ballyhoo about this scene is the one employed by a reader in a comments thread (and I’m sorry for dropping on her shoulders the heavy burden of poster-girl for social indignation) when she wrote that:

The shocking thing in this scene was, in fact, that Dr. Light dared go beyond the mere threat. The thrill of the menace was enough, just like in a theme park ride. In the comic book world some readers like to inhabit, bad things don’t happen to good people. Superhero’s wives are not raped by unscrupulous villains. Super-heroines are not objects of desire. It’s safer that way.

In truth, this kind of reaction harkens back to a time when comic books really seemed incapable of going beyond infantile prudishness even when dealing with larger issues. Take, for example, JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #84 (September 1962). At a certain point of the cover story for that issue “The Mighty Thor vs The Executioner”, Dr. Don Blake (Thor) is captured by the titular villain, a prescient ersatz Guevara/Castro figure that shows us the Marvel was much more aware of socialist reality than many of its critics.


When the Executioner, who has noticed the enticing young American nurse Jane Foster: “Such lovely eyes… such soft hair” is clearly a displaced appreciation of the girl’s other bodily charms – unmentionable by name in a comic book for kids. The sexual subtext is there, the libidinous menace is clear; and, noticing the concern of Jane over Dr. Blake, the ersatz Cuban dictator expresses his most primal instincts for the young American girl:

Would you marry me?” Yes… the sexual subtext is there, in a language that only children could identify with.